Friday, April 26, 2013

If you haven't gone down yet, there's still a chance

One of my favorite themes, as my regular readers know, is that you should never give up. I believe I have observed that this is a good mantra for the play of a particular hand, a session, or a bridge career. See for example my most recent effort in this genre: Never - ever - say die. Today, I'd like to talk about soldiering on when a particular hand looks hopeless.

But first, in the style of George Jacobs, let me tell you a story. I won't give the details away in order to protect the guilty, but Kim and I were having a good second session in a recent two-session event. There was nothing to play for, other than pride, since our first session score had not even reached the 40% mark! As is our custom on such occasions, we enjoyed a drink with dinner. Well, maybe it was two drinks. This was the last board of the event and all were vulnerable. Kim opened 2♣ (strong, artificial and forcing) and my RHO bid 2. I had a flat hand with four diamonds to the ten and the ♣Q. Our agreement is to double with any weak hand, regardless of shape. I was surprised to find Kim passing my double. How many diamonds could she reasonably have? At this point, my RHO, picked up the 2 card and asked the table "did I bid that?" Er, yes, we said. She then picked up the 3♣ card and placed it right on top of the 2 card, as if to obscure that bid. LHO and I both passed and Kim finished proceedings with a double.

After my lead, dummy came down with a balanced six-count, but with three diamonds and three clubs. At this point, we called the director over and explained what had happened; he offering to return if necessary. By the time the smoke cleared we were +1400 (Kim had a 28-hcp moose). We quickly determined that slam was impossible so it seemed that we had a top and didn't need a return by the director. My RHO's hand was something like ♠853 T75 Q5 ♣QT762, so what was that 2 all about? I admit I don't know. Most probably it was tiredness at the end of two long sessions. It's hard to imagine making any bid with that hand, even if the clubs were a major and could be bid at the two-level. I do have a sneaking suspicion that it might have been some sort of psych bid. In any case, we had received enough of those sorts of gifts to finish the second session with 68%.

So, back to my theme which is exemplified by a hand from a robot tournament. I think, judging from his sheer exuberance, that this must have been one of the younger robots playing as my partner. The auction followed the same lines at most tables. Only a handful were able to play in a more modest small slam. I was tempted to bid 7NT but thought better of it – if I could make 13 tricks in any strain, it would surely be a good score (though I admit that this argument doesn't hold as well as it might at, say, a club game).

When I saw the dummy, I was reminded of a similar exercise in grand slam futility mentioned in Mark Horton's excellent book Misplay these hands with me. Well, I had twelve tricks all day assuming the opening lead didn't get ruffed. But what chances were there for a thirteenth? Somewhere between no chance and a dog's chance, I calculated. But, and here is the key, I wasn't down yet.

There appeared to be no legitimate miracle. The only possibility was a squeeze-induced mis-defense. So, I simply ran all my tricks. The one thing that the robots are not good at is signaling. Note how East misplays at trick three by discarding 2. Doesn't his partner have a right to know that he holds the king? Surely all can see that spades and diamonds are the key suits on this hand. It's not like he's worried that partner will get in and lead diamonds pickling his K. If partner gets in, the grand slam is already down! In my opinion, the proper card to pitch is T, implicitly denying the jack and showing something good, hopefully the K. Actually, from West's point of view, he knows partner has the king because if I had it, I would be claiming. At trick four, East compounds his error by discarding the ♠6. Given that he's going to have to pitch several spades, he might as well tell a good story. I think that the jack would be much more informative – the start of an echo to show an even number of spades and implicitly denying the queen. At trick five, he pitches the ♣9 prematurely. It's obvious that pretty soon, I'll be cashing clubs and he'll show out sooner than necessary and will have to pitch something else. Jumping from suit to suit makes it that much harder to pass a consistent message to partner. At trick six – well, by this time, I think he's thoroughly confused his partner so it really doesn't matter what he pitches.

At trick ten, he bizarrely pitches the K while holding on to two spades (surely one is enough) and the 9 (which at this point is not equal to the king). After the next trick, I knew that there were still two spades out so clearly there was no point in trying to cash the deuce. Furthermore, I could be fairly sure that they held one spade each (why would anyone hang on to two?) I therefore tried my only hope, to promote the J. When the 9 appeared on my right, it was a sort of show-up squeeze. I was able to go up with the ace, felling the Q.

I was the only declarer to make all the tricks. One other tried the same line but was thwarted by a Robot East who seemed to know what he was doing. The other twelve declarers playing the same contract from the same side all gave themselves no chance at all.

Anyway, the moral of this story is that when there is no legitimate play, try the squeeze. Defenders are notoriously bad defending against squeezes and you never know – they might help you out as my East did for me.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

No wonder it takes so long to learn this game - the denouement

My previous blog No wonder it takes so long to learn this game! has generated a lot of discussion both here on and also at BridgeWinners. I really appreciate everyone's contributions. I've learned an important lesson in the complex curriculum of competitive bidding, in particular when the partnership can stop in four-of-a-minor after a game-forcing sequence (almost never).

Although I was clearly in a minority of one in my thinking about my partner's 4♣ call, I wasn't ready to give up on what seemed to me to be bridge logic until I heard back from my competitive bidding guru Andrew Robson. Thanks, Andrew.

In my own defense, I will point out that this notion of "game-forcing" being forcing only to 3NT or the four-level wasn't my own idea. I've read it in several places (although frustratingly now I don't remember where exactly). But I think I've got clarification now. In particular, in a non-competitive auction we can stop in four-of-a-minor only when we lack controls in the unbid suit and neither partner has sufficient extras to go to the five-level. If the opponents are silly enough to blunder into such an auction, we will of course take the opportunity to punish them. So, once the auction gets competitive, we will either double them or bid our game. No stopping in four-of-a-minor!

So, with the help of all the input, including the votes from the BridgeWinners polls, I've formulated some competitive bidding "rules" (I don't claim these as being in any way original). These rules revolve around the concept of a "committed" contract or level. A specific committed contract arises when one partner makes a call which forces the partnership to reach a particular higher-ranking contract. Examples include Bergen raises, Inverted Minor raises, Jacoby 2NT, Truscott/Jordan 2NT, cue-bids of the enemy suit, fit-showing jumps, etc. Some of these calls may include an "or better" clause which suggests that the bidder himself plans to keep on bidding beyond the committed contract if he has extras. In all cases of a committed contract, there is at least some element of fit, although in the case of an "or better" call, the bidder may be planning on or hoping for some other strain, such as no-trump.

When only a level, typically game, has been committed, it implies that no suit has been agreed and thus the partnership is committed to any contract that satisfies the level requirement. In such a case, the number one priority is to determine the strain of our game contract. Thus, showing support below game is 100% forcing to game – yes, even if it four-of-a-minor! [This is why, in the auction in the first post on this subject, 4♣ was forcing – and actually more encouraging than 5♣]. Denying support (by passing) and then pulling double (or 3NT) to 4♣ might be non-forcing – it seems to say "partner, I have a really bad hand, but I think you might be better off playing 4♣ than anything else." This probably requires some prior thought (but isn't likely to occur with much frequency).

In general, where this is a commitment, the partnership is said to be "in a force." This has the following implication:
  • the opponents may not play a contract below the commitment unless it is doubled.
And this further implies that:
  • a direct pass over intervention below the commitment is 100% forcing.
The other key question about the commitment is its level: are we committed to game? or only to a part-score? This matters when the opponents intervene with a bid above our commitment. If we are committed to game, then the force is still in effect. There are some possible exceptions to this blanket statement, but these are beyond the scope of this article. See, for example, Robson and Segal: Partnership Bidding – The Contested Auction.

At all other times in a competitive auction, i.e. when there is no commitment, we are back to "normal bridge." Thus, bidding shows something extra and passing says you have nothing to say. Double means whatever you and your partner have agreed to. But, based on all of the recent polls and articles I've seen on BridgeWinners, any time we have not yet found a fit and the most recent bid is below game, double is almost always takeout-oriented or "cards" where there is no explicit pre-agreement.

So, let me try to summarize these rules (where intervention is always a bid – doubles are out of scope for this discussion):
  • Intervention below committed contract: when a partnership is committed to a particular contract, any opponent's intervention of a bid which ranks below the committed contract imposes the following rules on direct bids:
    • bidding the committed contract shows no interest in defending or probing for a higher-scoring contract (i.e. it is a minimum hand, both defensively and offensively) and is therefore the only non-forcing call available (other than double) – this can be thought of as a form of fast arrival if you like;
    • for the sake of argument, double is assumed here to be penalty-oriented but note that the question of employing "pass-double inversion" is according to partnership agreement (and not in scope for this discussion);
    • all other calls are 100% forcing:
      • pass tends to show extra high cards without extra distribution and suggests at least the possibility of a penalty;
      • all other bids below the committed contract are trial bids for a higher-scoring contract (just as they would be if there had been no intervention);
      • bids above the committed contract show extras and, obviously, raise the level of commitment (again, we're essentially ignoring the intervention).
  • Intervention below committed levelsimilar to the above, but:
    • showing support is the first priority:
      • if this is still below the commitment, this is obviously forcing and more encouraging than supporting directly at the committed level;
      • otherwise, our support bid is not forcing because we have reached our committed level;
    • pass is forcing and denies support;
    • double is again the subject of partnership agreement.
  • Intervention above committed part-score contractnormal bridge logic:
    • bidding shows extras;
    • passing shows nothing to say;
    • double is penalty (since pass is non-forcing, if you have the hand for penalizing them, you have to do it).
  • Intervention above committed game contract:
    • subject to possible exceptions (see discussion above), we are in a "force":
      • pass is forcing;
      • double and pass are subject to pass-double inversion if agreed;
      • pass-and-pull is slam-invitational;
      • bidding on is "to play."
  • Intervention above committed level: this situation is a little more complex because the intervention may have precluded supporting at the committed level in one strain, but not in another:
    • pass (forcing) denies the ability to support at the committed level (i.e. we might still be able to support but it would require going beyond our committed level);
Some example sequences:
  1. 1 p 2NT 3: the partnership will play either 4 or a heart/no-trump slam – unless defending the opponents' doubled contract looks better; therefore pass is forcing and suggests that you wouldn't at all mind if partner decides to make a penalty double; any other bid below 4 is control-showing; of course, an immediate bid of 4 says you have a bare minimum (as it would without the interference) and furthermore that you would not welcome partner's penalty double.
  2. 1 1♠ 2♠ 3: the partnership will play at least 3 but partner may have higher ambitions of course – pass is forcing and suggests a relatively balanced hand with at least a little extra – if partner can make a penalty double you won't pull it; an immediate call of 3 (the committed contract) says you have no extra strength or distribution and have no interest in penalizing the opponents or of bidding beyond 3.
  3. 1 X 2NT 3♣: the partnership will play at least 3 as before (assuming that 2NT is Truscott/Jordan); 3 suggests extra distribution (but implies no extra strength) which you hope will help partner decide how high to go if there is more competition.
  4. 1 X 2NT 3♠: they have bid beyond our committed part-score contract so all "normal" bidding notions are back in force – bidding shows extras (either high cards, distribution or both); 4 suggests extra distribution and no extra strength and forces our side to at least 4. You hope the diamond bid will help partner decide how high to go if there is yet more competition.
  5. 1 p 2♣ 2: the partnership is committed to game, but we don't know which game yet; in this situation (there have been no jumps or cue-bids yet by our side), I do recommend pass-double inversion (as my regular readers know) so that pass keeps open (and suggests) the possibility of defending 2X while denying support for clubs; double therefore shows a hand which is relatively short in diamonds (and clubs) and therefore likely to have four spades – this could be happily converted to penalty in appropriate circumstances (rare). With two stoppers in diamonds one partner or the other is likely to bid no-trump (unless perhaps we are at favorable vulnerability in which case double becomes more tempting).
  6. 1 p 1♠ p 3♣ 3 (the original problem auction): 4♣ is forcing and showing some slam interest; 5♣ is not forcing; pass denies club or heart support (and suggests no great ability to stop diamonds).

Sunday, April 7, 2013

No wonder it takes so long to learn this game!

Kim and I went over to England for Easter for some family time. The weather was unusually cold and dreary but we had a lot of fun. On our last couple of days, we went up to London to see Les Miserables on the stage (fabulous) and then, on the way to the airport, so to speak, we played bridge at the Andrew Robson Bridge Club close to where I grew up in Fulham. For various reasons, we've wanted to play at that club for quite a long time now. It was a relatively small game (seven tables) and we received sufficient gifts along the way to win our direction. Our own game wasn't exactly error free though. We doubled a part-score and then mis-defended allowing them to make it.

Then this hand came up (rotated) with nobody vulnerable:

I opened 1 in fourth seat; Kim responded 1♠ and I rebid 3♣. So far, so good. We are in a "game force" but still need to determine the right strain. At this point, West decided to throw a monkey wrench into the proceedings with 3. I thought we had pretty good understandings of how to deal with interference – but I was wrong.

Here are the options that I thought Kim had:
  • pass (forcing) to await developments [if I double and she then pulls it, that shows extra strength and an interest in slam];
  • double (penalty because I jumped at my second turn – see my rules for doubles);
  • 3 (forcing) which I would take as delayed support with xxx (and about 9+ hcp since she didn't simply raise initially) or Hx (probably 10+ hcp);
  • 3♠ (forcing) extra length in spades, nothing about strength;
  • 3NT ("to play");
  • 4♣ (non-forcing, competitive);
  • 4 (forcing) though with no pre-discussed meaning;
  • 5♣ (fast arrival);
  • 4 (fast arrival) likely based on Hx and a minimum (6-9) response.
Unfortunately, Kim felt that an immediate 4♣ was forward-going and 100% forcing. I passed, given that my hand lost quite a bit of its lustre as the auction unfolded. I was able to wrap up twelve tricks without breathing hard.

How can two decent players, who have discussed these situations so often, be on such completely different wavelengths?

I decided to put the question to BridgeWinners. However, because I wanted to understand general principles, I created two polls to try and separate what I thought were the two different issues. Here are the links:
In the first, I tried to get an answer in general terms of direct seat options when an intervening bid was made below a specific "committed" contract. There are of course several different ways to "commit" our partnership to, say, 3 of a major. Another common sequence might be: 1♠ (2) 3. If the next player doubles or bids 3, opener will have choices, including a forcing pass. My understanding of standard "expert" bridge was that 3♠ is the only non-forcing call (other than double/redouble which could be left in if appropriate).

But, so far, the votes (and especially the comments) on BridgeWinners have not been unanimous, although at this point, my scheme is the majority opinion (23/33 votes). How can something so fundamental (and quotidian) have such divergent opinions?

In the second poll, I tried to ascertain what exactly was meant by being in a "game force," especially as it relates to the minor suits. My own understanding was that a jump shift by opener (as in this case) was only forcing to four of the minor. If the responder had bid with a bare minimum and 3NT is missing a stopper, then the partnership can play in four of the minor.

Again, I was somewhat surprised by the votes and comments on the poll. The majority opinion was that this is something that must be agreed in advance by the partnership (although of the others most thought that game meant just that – game).

So, I would be very interested in your comments. But, at the risk of being repetitive, I will reiterate that it amazes me that these are not the subject of clear-cut rules. No wonder it takes so long to learn this game!